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Common Errors by Korean Speakers of English


I¡¯ve been teaching English to Koreans for more than seven years, so I am well acquainted with their strong and weak points.  In particular, I know which errors in speech are most commonly made.  This page sets out to inform students of their mistakes so they can improve their speaking, writing, and comprehension skills.

1. "To look for" versus "To find"

2. "Neighbor" versus "Neighborhood"

3. "I thought" versus "I knew"

4. "I'm not really sure" versus "I don't know exactly"

5. "Korean" versus "Korean language"



1. ¡°To look for¡± versus ¡°To find¡±

I'm finding a job these days. (X)
I'm looking for a job these days. (O)


When we say "look for," it indicates a process—something that is underway. Take a look at this dialog:

Jim: What are you doing, Mike?
Mike: I'm looking for my keys. (O)

Mike has misplaced his keys, and he wants to find them. Thus, he is looking for them.

Let's revisit Mike and Jim a few minutes later...

Jim: Ready to go yet?
Mike: Yup. I finally found my keys.
Jim: OK, let¡¯s go!  And Mike, you should really try to get more organized! (O)


As you should have realized by now, when you say that you found something, you¡¯re talking about a completed act.  When you want to say that you are searching for something (using the present progressive tense), use ¡°look for,¡± not ¡°find.¡±


There are, however, occasions where ¡°find¡± is used in the present progressive tense.  On these occasions, though, ¡°find¡± has another meaning—it means the way you think or feel about a new experience you are currently undergoing.  For example,


-         Gerry¡¯s finding his new job at the warehouse pretty taxing. (O)

-         I¡¯ve been on this diet for weeks, and I¡¯m finding I have an irrepressible urge for carbohydrates. (O)

2. ¡°Neighbor¡± versus ¡°Neighborhood¡±


My neighborhood is a very kind woman. (X)

My neighbor is a very kind woman. (O)




This is a very common error, so I thought it was necessary to discuss it here.  I don¡¯t know why Koreans make this mistake, but they do.  Anyhow, the explanation for this mistake is quite simple.


A neighborhood is a place where one lives.  For example,


-         My neighborhood is safe, clean, and quiet. (O)


A neighbor, on the other hand, is a person.


-         I don¡¯t trust my new neighbors one bit. (O)


Got it?  I told you it was pretty simple.



3. ¡°I thought¡± versus ¡°I knew¡±


A: Janice looks so young, it¡¯s hard to believe she¡¯s only 35.

B: Are you serious?  I knew she was about 23. (X)

B: Are you serious?  I thought she was about 23. (O)




In English, if you want to show that an idea you had previously believed to be true is actually false, you need to use the verb ¡°think¡±—and not ¡°know.¡±  In this way, the verbs ¡°think¡± and ¡°know¡± are used differently in Korean and English.  For example,


-         Ouch, my jaw still hurts!  I knew I shouldn¡¯t have tried to kiss his girlfriend. (O)

-         I originally thought she was from Australia, but I found out later that she was actually from Britain. (O)



4. ¡°I¡¯m not really sure¡± versus ¡°I don¡¯t know exactly¡±


A: Do you know which buses go downtown from here?

B: I don¡¯t know exactly. (X) / I don¡¯t know well. (X)

B: I¡¯m not really sure. (O)




Koreans often say ¡°I don¡¯t know exactly.¡±  Why?  Because they are translating straight from their native language into Korean.  Watch out for this one!


If you just want to briefly state that you don¡¯t have a clear idea about something, say,


-         I¡¯m not really sure. (O) or

-         I¡¯m not quite sure. (O)


¡°I don¡¯t know exactly¡± sounds very strange in short sentences, but it is possible in longer sentences—for example, sentences with a relative pronoun (such as that, who, whom, whose).  See this example:


-         I don¡¯t know exactly what Harry did with the money I lent him. (O)


¡°I don¡¯t know well¡± isn¡¯t acceptable as long as the words remain in this order.  However, you can improve on this sentence by inserting a noun between ¡°know¡± and ¡°well,¡± and also by adding an adverb:


-         I don¡¯t know the principal well. (O)

-         I don¡¯t know Mr. Rogers very well. (O)


I hope by now that you know exactly what I¡¯m trying to say!



5. ¡°Korean¡± versus ¡°Korean language¡±


You speak Korean language really well! (X)

You speak Korean really well! (O)



If you¡¯re talking about languages, most of the time your sentences will look like this:


-         His Russian is terrible. (O)

-         You can speak Spanish?  Wow! (O)

-         He¡¯s fluent in English. (O)

-         I wish I could speak Hindi as well as you. (O)

-         Mitch can speak five languages: English, Korean, Japanese, Russian, and German. (O)


However, it is indeed possible to say ¡°English language,¡± ¡°Russian language,¡± etc.  In this case, the usage is literary.  For example,


-         The English language has its roots in French and German. (O)


Enough explanation?


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